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Rockford Art Museum Turns 100

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From its first piece to its 1700 pieces in the collection today, much of the museum’s collection is currently on display. Jon McGinty leads a quick tour through the past century, and shows how local artists will celebrate

Rockford Art Museum is housed at the Riverfront Museum Park, in Rockford. (Jon McGinty photo)

An icon of Rockford’s cultural history is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. The Rockford Art Museum (RAM) is commemorating its centennial with a special exhibition titled “Through the Ages: 100 Years of RAM.”

“The exhibition consists entirely of pieces from our permanent collection,” says Sarah Bursley McNamara, community relations director at RAM. “Every kind of media is represented – paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, glass, sculpture – and it’s on display in all three galleries. It will also be on view for an extraordinary length of time, until Jan. 26 of next year.”

The RAM permanent collection currently contains more than 1,700 works of modern and contemporary American art from the 19th and 20th centuries, through today, with a traditional focus on regional and Illinois artists.

“This museum is really Rockford’s gem,” says curator Carrie Breitbach. “Visitors from Milwaukee and Chicago are consistently amazed at our exhibition space and our collection.”

In addition to the exhibition, Breitbach and McNamara recently completed a 150-page commemorative book titled RAM 100: Rockford Art Museum Centennial, 1913-2013, which describes in detail the evolution of this venerable Rockford institution. It includes 140 color plates of art pieces from the permanent collection, as well as photographs of events and memorabilia.

According to the authors’ research, the Rockford Art Museum was officially incorporated on Feb. 15, 1913, as the Rockford Art Association. Its historical antecedents, however, began in the 1870s, with the Rockford Sketch Club, an informal group of local artists that included industrialist Robert H. Tinker.

The group’s title and membership changed many times over the years: Rockford Arts & Crafts Society (1904), Rockford Art Association (1913 & 1920), Rockford Art Guild (1915), Rockford Art League (1917), Rockford Art Club (1920), Burpee Art Gallery (1936), Burpee Art Museum (1960s), and finally (!) the Rockford Art Museum (1986). The organization also frequently changed locations for its meetings, exhibits and, eventually, office space for staff. In the early years, members met in various business establishments and rented rooms along the West State, Wyman and North Main Street corridors. This included the Orpheum Theater (later the New American Theater, now Sullivan Center), the Women’s Club on Park Avenue, and the Emerson House on North Main, which also housed the original classrooms for Keith Country Day School, and later the Burpee-Wood Funeral Home.

“Through all these changes, the common thread of ‘collection, exhibition and education’ has remained a constant driving force,” says Linda Dennis, RAM’s executive director. “The strength and backbone of our museum is the passion people have here for what they are doing. I see it in our staff, our volunteers, board members and contributors.”

Many of the methods and traditions still in place at RAM were established very early in its history. One of the goals of the founders, in 1913, was to build a permanent art collection for Rockford, and one which truly belonged to all its citizens.

“The very first piece in our collection came as the result of a contest,” says McNamara. In 1913, the Rockford Art Association (RAA), as it was then called, rented a room above Jackson Brothers store in the 100 block of West State Street and exhibited a large collection of art by American artists.

“Everyone who came to the show was asked to vote for their favorite piece,” says McNamara. “The most popular piece, ‘Beechwoods,’ by John Elwood Bundy, became part of our permanent collection.”

RAM’s tradition of opening an exhibit with a preview for members, followed by a free public opening the next day, began with its next exhibition. This annual exhibit eventually morphed into the juried Rockford Midwestern Biennial Exhibition, which continues to this day. Submissions are now restricted to artists from a nine-state area.

The Young Artist Show had its beginnings in 1913, and later, included the works of upperclassmen from high schools as well as college-age students. The Arts & Crafts Society handed out awards to enterprising artists in the form of scholarships for summer art classes. Today’s version has two exhibits: the Youth Division includes students in grades K-8 from Winnebago County, and the juried High School Division encompasses students in grades 9-12 from within a 50-mile radius of Rockford. Last year’s high school show included 151 pieces from 17 different schools.

“It’s a nice way for high school students to get their portfolios ready to compete on a college level,” says Breitbach.

Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft, whose Eagle’s Nest Art Colony had flourished in Oregon, Ill., since 1898, joined the RAA in 1920. He performed his well-known Clay Talks as part of the lectures proffered by the group. During these talks, Taft would start by modeling a clay head of a beautiful young woman. As he continued to lecture on the subject of beauty, Taft gradually changed the woman into middle age. Then, just before finishing his remarks, he would make a quick adjustment to her chin, changing the image into an old hag. Another lecture sponsored by the group presented famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who spoke to an overflow crowd in Rockford’s Second Congregational Church.

By the 1930s, RAA was in need of a more permanent home to house its growing collection of artwork, and in which to present its intended educational programs. Through the generosity of Harry and Della Burpee, the association was able, in 1934, to move into the Nelson-Manny mansion (pictured left) at 737 N. Main St., which opened as the Burpee Art Gallery, in 1936. This building, later named the Burpee Art Museum, remained RAA’s home until 1986.

Renovations to Burpee in 1939 enlarged gallery space and provided an auditorium for programs, lectures and studio classrooms. At about the same time, the Burpee Natural History Museum opened in the renovated Barnes mansion next door, sharing office space with the Rockford Park District.

In 1948, the Greenwich Village Art Fair began on the oak-shaded lawn of the Burpee Art Gallery, and has become the longest-running fundraiser for the Museum. It’s still held on the second weekend after Labor Day, but now in the parking lot adjacent to RAM’s current building. It’s regarded as the oldest continuous juried outdoor fine arts fair in the Midwest.

Three other important fundraisers take place each year. The Evergreen Ball, started in 1989, takes place on the first Saturday in December. It’s a formal gala held in the museum galleries, the only such event held there. Art in the Garden takes place in August, and is an outdoor dinner and dance presented at La Paloma Gardens, a well-known local landmark owned by artist Karen Harding, a long-time supporter of RAM. It began in 2005. The Barbara Rinella Luncheon, presented by the Women’s Art Board, is a witty, one-woman show based on critically acclaimed best-selling book characters. It began in 1997.

The Women’s Art Board itself was formed in 1963. Throughout its 50-year history, the primary focus has been education, by supporting the Young Artist Show, holding fundraisers and sponsoring lecture series, such as the noon-time Art Talks, begun in 1993, and the Barbara Rinella luncheon.

RAM has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with photographers and fine art photography. One of its first meeting rooms was in a photographic studio, and its first photographic exhibition was in 1919. The Rockford Photo Club, formerly the Rockford Lens & Shutter Club, still holds monthly meetings in a downstairs classroom at the museum.

From 1972 to 1974, the museum presented a series of photographic workshops taught by Al Weber and Ralph Putzker, two leading members of the West Coast School of Photography, which also included Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Concurrent with the workshops was a juried photography show titled “Radius” – entries were limited to residents within a 150-mile radius of Rockford. In 1974, the exhibition produced a portfolio of winning entries, which was sold to collectors. That portfolio is also part of RAM’s permanent collection, and is featured in the “100 Years of RAM” exhibit.

Out of his connection to Burpee, Arnold Gilbert, another member of the West Coast School and an avid collector of photography, donated his collection of 140 historical photographs to RAA in 1974, which “set the stage” for future donations of major collections to RAM. Gilbert later co-founded the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College in Chicago.

During the 1970s and ’80s, RAA’s collection and programming ambitions continued to grow, and the search for new space persisted. For awhile, the old Post Office on South Main was contemplated, then rejected. In 1974, the Central National Bank at Main and Mulberry also was under serious consideration, but no deal was struck. That building was eventually demolished, and a parking lot constructed in its place.

When the Sears Department Store just south of Burpee closed in the 1980s, the Sears Corporation donated the vacant building to RAA. The name was changed to Rockford Art Museum (RAM) in 1986. While this expanded, considerably, the space for exhibits, offices and storage, the building needed extensive renovations to become a viable museum.

In 1988, RAM formed a “cultural consortium” with Discovery Center Museum, Rockford Dance Company, Rockford Symphony Orchestra, and Storefront Cinema, who all agreed to share space within the soon-to-be renovated department store. While this reconstruction took place, RAM moved its offices into nearby Garrison School, and the collection was stored at Rockford College, now Rockford University.

Generous naming donations in 1989 and the early 1990s provided funding for the Funderburg and Kuller Galleries on the main floor, the Anderson Gallery downstairs and the Ahlstrand Sculpture Garden outside.

The new complex, hailed as one of only a dozen such sites in the U.S., was dedicated as the Riverfront Museum Park for the Arts and Sciences in February, 1991. The renovations included a connecting tunnel to the expanding Burpee Museum of Natural History, which had moved into the former RAM location next door.

“One of the beauties of the present site is that it contains three major museums,” says Dennis, “the Discovery Center, Burpee Natural History Museum, and the Rockford Art Museum. People can easily visit all three in the same day. And having the arts and sciences in the same complex provides a lot of synergy.”

The RAM permanent collection has continued to grow, thanks in no small part to generous donations from various art collectors. These include: the Spiezer collection of works by Chicago-based artists and studio glass artists worldwide (1992); the Hager collection of art by self-taught African Americans (1994); the on-going Minert donation of photography (1995); the Wiikin collection of studio glass (1996); and the Jessica Holt Purchase Awards (1992-2000). In recent years, the Anderson Gallery downstairs has been reserved for permanent collection shows.

“We often receive comments from donors who appreciate the space dedicated to the permanent collection,” says Breitbach. “Since we can turn over shows more frequently, they know their donations will be seen by the community, more so than if they donated to a larger museum, where it might sit in a vault for 10 years.”

In addition to collection and exhibition, the educational component at RAM has grown over the years. Current offerings include: Children’s classes and adult lectures related to each new exhibition; an artist-in-residence program which provides art studio classes for adults at all levels; adult and “Whiz Kids” art and enrichment classes through Rock Valley College’s Community Education Program; and summer art camps for kids, in combination with the Rockford Dance Company and Discovery Center.

“We’re constantly looking for new ways to take the fear out of art,” says Dennis. “Every art museum is faced with that issue. I think we do a very good job of trying to make people feel more comfortable and less intimidated.”

To that end, RAM has become very accessible to the general public. It’s open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day (closing only four days each year). It offers free admission every Tuesday, and on the Saturday after each exhibition opening. A recent renovation moved the museum store into the foyer of the main galleries. This opened a space now known as the Art Annex, which is free and open all year long. The annex includes RAM’s extensive research library and the walls often display the works of local artists.

“The annex exposes many people to our exhibitions and programs,” says McNamara, “even those on their way to or from dance classes or the Discovery Center. They may then come to our full exhibits at a later date.”

“It’s always been a personal mission for me to get people involved here who may have a limited art experience,” says Breitbach. “We continue to look at the community as a whole, not just the art community, and gear our exhibits toward what our demographic would be interested in.”

As an example, Breitbach mentions the “Rockford Made” exhibition in 2011, which featured works in wood and mixed media by Jim Julin and John Deill. Breitbach and Deill went to a local carpenters union meeting and invited its members to a special “trade night” showing of the exhibit.

“We wanted to bring in tradesmen that had never been to the museum before, so they could look at this fine art that was created by carpenters like themselves…We had about 50 visitors that night, maybe five had been here before.”

Another part of RAM’s long-term commitment to the local community involves support to local artists. One artist who has enjoyed this support is Lynn Fischer-Carlson, professor of art at Rock Valley College, who’s been connected to RAM for nearly 20 years. She grew up outside Philadelphia and was used to big museums. When she moved to Rockford to attend NIU in DeKalb for her Master’s Degree, she volunteered at the Rockford museum to connect to the local community and the outside world.

“The staff treated me professionally, as an artist, from the very beginning,” says Fischer-Carlson. “They also allowed me to grow as an artist and educator in many ways.”

Since her first encounter with RAM staff in 1985, Fischer-Carlson has taught children’s classes at RAM, exhibited in several shows, including the Midwestern Biennial, received several awards, including the Jessica Holt Purchase Award in 1996, given lectures on various topics, and was even led to Rock Valley for her first employment. She currently serves on an advisory panel of local artists and business people who are consulted by RAM staff when making plans for exhibitions and events.

“I’m now in a place where I can give back to the community and to the museum,” says Fischer-Carlson. “It’s really because of them that I’m able to do that. And by bringing traveling exhibits to Rockford, RAM helps me expose my students to the wider art world. Many of them haven’t been to museums outside Rockford.

“I don’t think the Rockford community realizes how hard the RAM staff works to spend their limited resources wisely, to show a diverse group of art work, to bring in top-notch jurors for shows, and to support local artists. I know their heart and soul is wrapped up into it.

“RAM is also far more approachable than some people realize. It’s a beautiful space. They’re always thinking about that space, and the community they’re reaching out to. It’s always a challenge to present quality work, challenging work, and art that people will want to come to see. I hope RAM continues to seek that balance, but still pushes the envelope, by showing what else is out there, while keeping the Rockford community connection in mind.”

So do we.

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